In the last few years, no single destination in all of Southeast Asia has been the recipient of harsher criticism, has had more vocal objectors, or has been a stronger lightning rod for controversy than that of Vang Vieng, Laos. What was once a small, riverside town popular with traveling vagabonds and new-age hippies has now blossomed into a full-fledged amusement park for the backpacker sub-culture. The main drag of town (now dubbed the “Khao San Road,” a nod to the famous backpacker haunt in Bangkok) is lined with cafes showing endless loops of American sit-coms such as Family Guy, South Park, and Friends; roadside vendors selling fruit shakes and roti pancakes call out to passers-by; hotels and guesthouses are being built as fast as construction constraints allow; a “look the other way” attitude prevails in regards to the liberal use of drugs and alcohol; and shirtless foreigners wander the streets like a parade of zombies — all in stark contrast to the traditionally conservative culture of Laos.
The most significant source of the controversy, however, arises with the activities that take place along the Nam Song River. The most popular pastime here is tubing, where visitors rent an inner tube for a few dollars, are driven a few kilometers upriver, and are then expected to float back downriver. Although this sounds like a relatively innocent pursuit, the main point of the trip is to stop at as many of the riverside bars as possible, consuming Whiskey Buckets at each stop (literally, a small bucket filled with Lao whiskey and Red Bull), dance to the techno music that is blaring through the bars’ speakers, slurp down a few “Magic Shakes” or mow through a few “Happy Pancakes,” and generally revel in the anything-goes party atmosphere. Naturally, this dangerous combination of a fast-moving river and intoxicated youngsters has led to upwards of a dozen deaths each year — though rumors abound that this is only a fraction of what actually occurs, as the mass majority of deaths and serious injuries go unreported.
On one hand, there are the detractors who say that this type of behaviour clashes with the culture of Lao people, that it sets a bad example for the Lao youth who grow up watching drunken foreigners making fools of themselves, and that it is just too dangerous to be allowed to continue. On the other hand, there are those that argue the locals benefit from — and even encourage – the influx of Western tourists bringing their money to what is a very poor region of a very poor country and that those who don’t like what takes place simply shouldn’t visit here, leaving it for those who do want to take part in the festivities.
Regardless of whichever side of the coin your opinion may fall, it doesn’t look as though the argument is going to be settled anytime soon. What is often overlooked, however, is that this region of Laos has some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery in all of Southeast Asia, with the combination of limestone karsts, snaking rivers cutting swaths through the forests, and the ever-present backdrop of majestic mountains framing the entire scene. Additionally, there are many activities that one can take part in besides the above-mentioned party-goer antics, such as hiking and trekking in the nearby hills, exploring the Buddha-image-lined caves surrounding the town, and cycling along the open-roads that fan out away from town.
Though I did spend a few days around town, I chose not to partake in the intoxicated tubing down the river, as drinking myself silly with a group of folks almost a half-generation younger than I am — and what seems like a much larger divide than that – no longer seems like the best option to me (I guess I am maturing in my old age). I did, however, hire a bicycle and rode down to a least check out the scene for posterity’s sake:
As an alternate activity to occupy my time, I chose to submit to my insatiable desire to climb any hill or mountain within eyeshot. When wandering around the outskirts of town, I stumbled across a sign pointing towards a hill named Chapoak a few kilometers away that boasted great views of the surrounding area — which was all the convincing I needed. The climb was a short one, but far more treacherous than I had anticipated. Luckily, however, I brought my camera with me such that I’d be able to take others along for the ride:
When researching places that I’d like to visit, I had been deliberately leaving Vang Vieng off of my itinerary given the avalanche of bad press that has plagued the town. At the last second, though, I decided it best to suspend judgement until I had at least set foot in town myself, and went ahead and booked my bus ticket. As with most cities of infamy, the stories and tales you’ll hear prior to arriving are, in fact, mostly true, but still only represent one facet of the broader picture, a small aspect of the whole. Though I wouldn’t want to spend more than a few days here at any given time, I’m certainly glad that I included it as a part of my trip, that I was able to see that there is much more to the town than what the critics claim, and was able to add yet another valuable experience to my life’s collection.
After this, I’m off to the romantic get-away of Luang Prabang for a few days of wandering amongst the French Colonial architecture, sipping lattes in the many European-style cafes, and enjoying the local fare while taking in views of the Mekong River. Until then, Cheers from Vang Vieng!